As the Congress Party stumbles towards what looks like a massive general election defeat, one candidate is performing with the conviction of a potential winner who believes he can help implement change in the way that India works.
Nandan Nilekani, the Congress Party candidate in Bangalore South, is well aware that he has only a 50-50, or maybe 60-40 chance, of defeating the sitting Bharatiya Janata Party MP, Ananth Kumar, but there is no doubt that he is bringing a practical approach and confidence that his party leadership lacks.
A founder and former chairman of Infosys, the iconic information technology company where he worked for 27 years till 2009, Nilekani recently headed the government’s Unique Identification Authority of India that is setting up a countrywide biometric database with personal identity numbers called aadhaar (foundation stone). Bureaucratic and political hassles that hit him building that database have led him to inter active politics as an elected MP.
Three days ago, I stood with Nilekani on a jeep driving through his constituency’s lower-middle-class crowded lanes and streets at the head of a motorcade of 200 or so cheering flag-waving scooter and motorbike riders. Nilekani waved and namaste’d to the crowds, nudged occasionally by the local Congress legislative assembly member to acknowledge those eager for eye contact.
The most enthusiastic leapt up on the jeep to garland Nilekani and the MLA (and anyone else within arms’ reach including me, twice). He had been out and about since 5.30 am when he canvassed with early-morning walkers in parks, and he said during a TV interview on the jeep that he found his new role tough and exhausting.
What is this 58-year old IT tycoon, who has officially declared his and his wife’s wealth at Rs7,700 crore (US$1.28bn), doing seeking mass votes alongside old-style Congress power brokers in street-level politics when doors are open for him in boardrooms, universities and think-tanks across the world?
When I first heard he was becoming a candidate some months ago, I said him I thought he was crazy, firstly to want to become a Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) MP, and then to choose to do so with the discredited Congress Party. I had just written about him and his identity scheme in my recently published book “IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality” to show how India’s projects can be executed effectively when one person is put in charge and is given top-level political backing.
I said I thought he ought to be looking to apply his IT knowledge, administrative acumen and personal team-leading skills to other poorly performing areas such as health and education services, food distribution and urban planning. Surely becoming an MP would take him away from the front line of such implementation.
I put the question to him again as we drove in his car way from the canvassing area late in the evening, and he admitted that becoming an MP was not his first preference for tackling the areas I had mentioned.
“If I had a choice, I would stay a technocrat and take sophisticated challenges – that’s what I’d like to do,” he said. “Solutions have to be found with out-of-the-box thinking and I would have faced blockages…..Changing any system is difficult, so I need political legitimacy to drive the change that is needed”. Only membership of the Lok Sabha would give that legitimacy.
He is reluctant to discuss the future, but I pressed him because I still could not understand why he was so sure being an MP was the answer – though, if he was determined to do so, it was clearly right for him to go for the Lok Sabha rather than the more honorific Rajya Sabha, the upper house, where tycoons seeking prestige and government contacts have paid crores of rupees in political bribes to obtain a seat.
He prefers simply to say his first task is to win the election. His constituency votes on the 17th and his chances have been boosted by massive corruption when the BJP was in power in the state till May last year, and by his opponent Ananth Kumar’S declining reputation.
He then opened up a little, carefully avoiding saying he wanted to become a government minister. “If Congress forms part of the next government, I hope to play a role in that government”. If Congress was not part of the government, he would try to create a coalition of MPs from about 100 predominantly urban constituencies to look at reforming urbanization. Overall, his aim would be to tackle “anything where there’s a problem to be solved…taking charge of something and seeing it through,” driving change and finding people who could manage and implement what was needed.
Businessmen rarely succeed when brought in at a top level as ministers in countries with the Indian (and British) sort of parliamentary system, so maybe Nilekani is right to want to begin just as an MP. Another technocrat, US-based Sam Pitroda, was a high-level technology adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, especially on rural telecommunications, and he continued to advise the current Congress government. Nilekani presumably wants to be a more effective than Pitroda with a base in parliament to strengthen top-level political patronage.
Some people in Bangalore gossip that he will perform for Rahul Gandhi the prime ministerial role that Manmohan Singh has done for Sonia Gandhi. Unsurprisingly he denies that – and it is scarcely a relationship to be emulated (as Sanjaya Baru shows in his new book Accidental Prime Minister).
If he wants to make a difference quickly, joining Congress seems illogical just as it is probably about to go into opposition, but Nilekani says he does not choose his politics according to who is going to win, adding that he was brought up and remains rooted in Nehruvian politics. The BJP clearly would not be the home for him, and he dismisses the Aam Aadmi Party as “incoherent on strategy, policy and ideology”. He acknowledges it has played a role in attacking corruption and says its “ideas will outlive the party”.
With his wealth and Congress connections, he’s an easy target for critics, and there are plenty of those in Bangalore and elsewhere. Many carp about the identity scheme’s record and its achievements, though Nilekani proudly states that he reached his target of enrolling 600 million people with identity cards before he left to campaign in the election, and rejects ideas that the cards will not be widely used. Critics persist however, saying he should have set the scheme on a firmer base and even questioning lack of vocal support from old Infosys colleagues.
Beyond all this, Nilekani’s entry into politics is significant at a time when India’s middle class increasingly wants to change the way the country is run. That was evident on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere with mass protests over corruption, rape, and the behaviour of the police that began three years ago with what was known as the Hazare movement and later by the AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal.
The street protests have faded away, and I have been asked in recent weeks (when discussing my book) whether I think that middle class demand for change will fade away once economic growth returns to near the 8 percent levels of a few years ago and a feel-good factor returns. There may be something in that, but Nilekani’s wish for “transformative” (as he puts it) policies shows what can be done, along with other initiatives in Bangalore.
V.Balakrishnan, another former Infosys director, is standing as an AAP candidate and told me, when I walked with him in his Bangalore Central constituency, that he is backed by the middle class who “want an honest system.” Observers give him little chance of winning, but he says the AAP gets support from “people on the ground while businessmen want the BJP”.
There are also voluntary organizations trying to lead to change. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, founder chairman of Biocon, a leading biotech company, and Mohandas Pai, another former Infosys director, have set up B.PAC that works with bureaucrats to improve road schemes and other infrastructure projects and has staged debates for general election candidates.
It is fashionable in Indian election campaigns to focus not on urban issue but on rural areas where 65 percent of India’s population live, often in desperate poverty and lacking health education and other services.
In this election however, urban areas are significant because it is here that India’s aspirational youth live. The urban young do not relate to the sops and entitlement politics of Congress’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that are aimed at winning rural votes, but instead go for those who offer opportunities for growth. Many will vote BJP for quick growth, and some will back the AAP for anti-corruption and other longer-term reforms. Nilekani’s challenge is to buck that trend and win support on the basis that he offers not sops but both growth and improvements in the way the country is run.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, can be found at the right hand of this page